Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Central Heating

If you live in a cold region, it is reasonable to assume you need heat in the winter. After all, a human would freeze to death if he were directly exposed to sub-freezing temperatures for long, especially at night. This doesn't have to be "active" heat, however--heat that is generated by burning fossils fuel or consuming electricity. Passive heat can work just as well, provided the space you are occupying is small.

Most people in modern industrial societies consume far more heat than they need. They own or rent cavernous homes--size proportional to income--which they insist on heating in their entirety, even though most of this space is used only for storage. This is where "central heating" is required. This is a a furnace or other heating system that forces heat into the rest of the home via ducts or water pipes. Compared to distributed heating systems, like space heaters or fireplaces, central heating is relatively efficient, but the fact that it is required at all suggests you have far more space than you need.

The custom of heating large spaces to live in is a cultural phenomenon, not a requirement of survival or even comfort. For practical purposes, all you need to heat is the air immediately around you, and often insulation alone is sufficient without the need to burning anything.

In everyday life, you need heat for two things: for sleeping and for conducting relatively sedentary waking activities, like reading or working on a computer. Can you be comfortable doing things without central heating?

Sleep is the time when you are most vulnerable, so you'd think that's when you most need heat. Wrong! Because you aren't moving much when you sleep, you can wrap yourself in insulation -- warm clothing and bedding. If you are cold, you just add more layers. You can also use bedding systems that are more enclosed, like sleeping bags, rather than loose ones like blankets. It makes no difference to the body whether it is wrapped in several sleeping bags in an unheated room or is sleeping with a single blanket in a home heated to 78 degrees. The financial difference, though, can be huge. The cost of sleeping bags is trivial compared to the ongoing cost of burning fuel to actively heat the home.

The most important key to survival in harsh climates is not staying warm but staying dry. If your bedding gets wet, then its insulation value collapses. This is where shelter comes in--be it a house, shed, tent or car. It protects you from water! If you have waterproof shelter and plenty of warm clothing and bedding, then heat is mainly a comfort issue. As with all comfort issues, heat is negotiable. It's a balance of cost and what works best.

There is little reason, apart from social and cultural expectations, to heat an enclosed home a night--regardless of the outside temperature. As long as you remain dry and the air around you is still, there is no low temperature that can't be addressed by passive insulation wrapped snugly around you. If one sleeping bag doesn't work, try two or three. The only plausible reason for nighttime heating in cold regions is that the indoor plumbing might freeze (just one more curse of this modern contrivance!). Okay, so if you already have central heating and insist on having indoor plumbing, then set your thermostat to just above freezing. That's a reasonable baseline for the amount of ambient heat you need around you when you sleep.

In the morning, of course, it can be a challenge to get out of a warm bed into a cold room. That's when you need more active heat sources. If you are actively exercising, your body generates it's own heat, and you can do these activities outdoors or in an unheated space. But if your job is to type things on a computer, it is hard to imagine doing this with gloves on in a room that's close to freezing. There is a limit to how many layers of insulation you can wear around you and still engage in subtle motor skills.

However, when you are sitting in one place doing something, you aren't occupying much space. You can work on a computer just as easily in a 5-foot cube as in a spacious study, so why do you need to heat the whole house? In general, the smaller the space, the more cheaply and efficiently it can be heated. Yes, central heating may be efficient overall, but not as efficient as heating just the room--or portion of the room--you happen to be in.

So why not just work in a 5-foot cube? If it was well-insulated, your body alone would heat it and you wouldn't need any fossil fuels. Of course, it is hard to find a 5-foot cube on the market designed for that purpose, but you wouldn't expect it in our society. Our commercial culture always wants to sell us excess -- like a 2000-square-foot home with all the accessories and upkeep -- because that's where the profits lie. If you want a humble 25-square-foot box to work in (or even live it), you'll probably have to make it yourself and accept that society will see you as eccentric.

Central heating was a reasonable solution to heating the traditional house--better than fireplaces at least. But if you think about what you really need in life, both the house and the heating system may be unnecessarily. First of all, do you need to be living in this cold climate at all? As long as you avoid the humid lands, life is far easier closer to the equator. Secondly, wouldn't your life be more efficient if it were housed in the smallest package possible? Not only is it cheaper in terms of rent and heating fuel, but it encourages you to live a lean and nonsense-free life instead of a flabby and cluttered one.

A reasonable compromise for the modern knowledge worker is a small studio apartment. It's easy to maintain, cheap to heat, and because there's a hard limit to the available space, it's not going to be filled up with Things You Don't Need. Yes, it is useful to have a place to sleep, eat, store a few clothes and perform whatever meaningful activities you are engaged in. The rest is vanity and empty entertainment, and there is no sense trying to heat it.


  1. "A reasonable compromise for the modern knowledge worker is a small studio apartment."

    Or one of these:


  2. One suggestion: remember, you can always close of vents and close doors in "unused" rooms, to make "central" heat/air conditioning more frugal. Be sure, in such cases, to use something to help with leakage around the door, too.

    In most cases, like mine, it was already there.

    However, that does not mean I have to overuse it.

    I keep mine on 80 for the A/C and on 60 for the heater, and wrap myself in sweaters, or blankets (at night), etc., and do just fine.

    I do have a small space heater in the bathroom, so that when I take a shower, I do not exit into frigid air.

    Not that it's harmful. I'm smarter than that. But very uncomfortable, for me. However, I only use it when in the shower. Not when merely at the sink grooming, or using the commode.

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  5. Hi! thanks for this article! I am sure that heating is important issue, especially if you live in your own house. Yes, you really need more space for it then you think! I want to say about drawback of such systems! It is huge power cunsuming! We have just moved to new house and decided to save money on electricity, we bought solar pnel (btw we did it here hardware.nu) and I can say that it warms better then ordinary heating system!

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